Tolstoy once wrote that “true life is lived when tiny changes occur.” 2021 was a year that seemed to hint at the potential for great change and yet, for me, it never seemed to fully deliver. One year on, and I feel that things have remained relatively static despite the time that has passed.
Maybe this is a naive way to view things and, perhaps, it's unwise to try and define our lives by what we think of as big changes. Instead, we might listen to Tolstoy and try and find true life through all the tiny changes that occur.
CONNECTIONS, January 2021
We're back in the thick of it. We're adapting to the change — or, at least, telling ourselves that we are adapting to it. We pretend like everything is normal. Dipping in and out of it all through our devices.
It's January and we have reverted back to online teaching. Everything now takes place through screens. They say that only 4% of people will complete an online course. It is because these courses lack community. Social units give us solidarity, accountability and peer pressure. We’re sociable beings. We rely far more on connection than we think. Loneliness is as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.
In my time off I sit at the exact same desk where I work. I attend a talk with a writer. I haven't read much of his work, but it's nice to have an opportunity to sit in the company of another person — particularly now that we don't go outside. He seems smart, warm, and passionate. He speaks from his apartment in Berlin where a warm light glows on the pale white wall behind him. My screen takes me to his writing room and I wonder if I should move to Berlin. Would it make me smarter, warmer, and more passionate? It's nice to listen to him talk and imagine I'm also there in the city on a grey day in a cosy apartment.
He ends the conversation with a reading. It's a poem he wrote five years ago after hearing of the death of one of his heroes. He says that the poem arrived on the way to the airport. He took it down, like dictation, on his phone. It has the feeling of a moment that was captured in the moment — a time long before all of this happened. As he reads, his eyes tear up. Is it the loss of his hero or the remembering of a time now gone? Maybe it's both. Maybe it's neither. We see people cry on screens all the time and yet this moment feels different.
He finishes the reading.
"Well, I guess that's the end of the event. Thanks for tuning in." The Zoom call cuts out. I'm back at my desk. He's back in Berlin. A sudden change. I sit for a moment and then I leave my desk and fix my lunch.
COLLECTIVISM, February 2021
Halfway through the month, they announce nine more weeks of lockdown. In Taiwan, my friend posts videos online that show him walking the streets of Taipei. The country has a population of 25.5 million and has seen only eight deaths in total. We chat, and I tell him I've enjoyed his videos while being in lockdown. "Yes, luckily the Taiwanese are comfortable wearing masks and it more or less works"
MEN, March 2021
The murder of Sarah Everard sparks widespread debate about violence against women. A survey finds that four-fifths of young women in the UK have been sexually harassed. Women are advised to not leave their houses after 9 PM. This causes outrage. Why not ban men from leaving their homes? Why are women always the ones who are forced to change?
I spend my days sitting in it. Reading and listening. Attempting to wrestle with why I'm hesitant to engage in the conversation. I worry that my voice has no place in this discussion. “Listen to women” is the advice — and it's good advice — but this time it feels like it's not enough. Women are screaming and male silence just condones this behaviour further.
If anything, the conversation needs more men in it. This is part of the problem. We live in a society that purposefully and deliberately removes men from these conversations. We talk about the murder of a woman, not about the man that killed her. We talk about young women being sexually harassed, and not about the men who are harassing them. We talk about the women who shouldn't leave their homes, and not the men who should stay indoors.
Jackson Katz speaks about this. He highlights how the way we speak about these issues needs to change. “Even the term 'violence against women' is problematic" he notes. "It’s a passive construction, there’s no active agent in the sentence. It's a bad thing that happens to women, but when you look at the term 'violence against women' nobody is doing it to them. It just happens to them. Men aren’t even a part of it!”
We exist in a system that is designed to produce inequality and harm.
SEASONS, April 2021
I wake with sunburn. I eat eggs and drink coffee. I sense the changing of the seasons far more these days. Outside, I breathe in the green air of Spring.
FUTURES, May 2021
We edge closer to the end of the academic year. These students have seen a lot of change — but not the good kind. College, fundamentally, is all about change. It should be a space to try things on. The college experience is about figuring out who you might like to be. It is a space for imaging the future. You get a handful of years and, with these, you get to imagine what it might be like to be an architect, or an economist or a fashion designer. You get to imagine a potential future version of yourself.
Obviously, college is about far more than just careers. It is also about trying out what it means to be an adult for the first time. For many, it is the first chance to exist beyond the family home and, with that new independence, they have space to explore and redefine themselves as people. We need spaces to facilitate that change. It's hard to do this when you're stuck in your childhood bedroom attending lectures over Zoom.
BODIES, June 2021
June brings a change of pace. My body feels tired. A pandemic is a strange time to have a body. For many, this body has spent the last few months as nothing more than a set of flickering pixels on a screen. We still don't hug. Bodies have become instruments for anxiety, guilt and confusion.
I walk past people and I give them space.
When I exercise, I ask myself what it means to have a body — what it means to have a man's body? I think of the freedom I have to walk alone at night. I think about the expectations that there are around how I hold myself; how I dance; how I should feel about physical affection. There is the understanding that this body is a threat.
And so, I walk past people and I give them space.
I read a book that explains how ideas of masculinity are shaped by culture. It speaks about a research paper that compares Danish definitions of manhood with those in America. In Denmark, men say that to ‘be a man,’ means not being a boy; yet in America, they say that to ‘be a man,’ means not being a woman. This is an understanding that suggests that femininity somehow stands in opposition to being a man. Qualities that Americans associate with women such as empathy and expressions of emotion are destroyed in boyhood. What else do we lose through this action? What responsibilities do we inherit?
I continue to walk past people and I give them space.
PLANES, July 2021
Non-essential international travel resumes this month.
I listen to a conversation about housing in Ireland. This country has failed my generation. They talk about the sense of shame and failure that comes from the experience of not being able to afford a place of your own. People are being infantilised. They are losing their self-worth and their self-esteem. It's clear that people need their own spaces so that they can explore and redefine themselves as people. It's hard to do this when you're stuck in your childhood bedroom presenting lectures over Zoom.
They suggest that sharing personal stories of this experience will bring about change — much like it did during the Marriage Equality referendum and the Abortion referendum. We need empathy, and stories and no more greed. I want to see change, but maybe I also just want to leave.
It's July and planes have returned to the sky.
ROLLER SKATES, August 2021
I go to a roller-disco and learn that I am incredibly bad at roller-skating. My body simply lacks the necessary grace and elegance. Despite this, it ends up being one of the best days I have had in a long time. I tend to forget that it's ok to be bad at things.
One of the many problems with capitalism is that you're not meant to enjoy things that you're bad at. You can draw, or you sew, or you make music but if you're any good at your hobby you're encouraged to turn into a career. They can't just be their own thing. You've got to be productive — otherwise, you're wasting your time.
WORK, September 2021
I read an article called: Yoga won’t improve your staff’s mental well-being if they can’t pay the rent. It stays with me. I've missed every session of work's Morning Mindfulness since they started at the beginning of this pandemic. Unfortunately, they are scheduled at the same time I am meant to be working.
I decide to no longer use the word 'burnout'. Instead, I will simply call it 'exploitation'.
I think about solidarity. It's easy to cry out for radical change. We can call for strikes and make as many big statements as we like. I'm all for it. Let's tear this system down. But, despite how fired up we get, in the end these things tend to amount to little more than empty gestures. The truth is that actual change comes from doing actual work. Often it's boring and repetitive work — it's the tiny stuff that is necessary. If you want to see change then don't just say you want change: join a union. Roll up your sleeves and do the actual work. Be active and be organised. Radical action is not an end in itself. Change needs time, and space, and nourishment.
I think once again about solidarity. It more or less works.
AMBIGUITIES, October 2021
I chat with a friend who frames it well. She says that there is a sense that people took this pandemic as a moment to reassess; a chance to discover exactly what they want in life. She doesn't know what she wants — and even worse is that it feels like there is a real lack of options right now.
This conversation stays with me. I was unable to articulate this but it is exactly how I have felt over the last few months.
It all makes sense too. A crisis will always operate as an accelerator for change. People sharpen their priorities. They say: "let's move in together, let's get married, let's have a baby". And it also works the other way too: "let's stop this, let's break up, let's quit that job".
We tend to hear stories about both of these extremes. These are examples of people who have figured out what they want and what they don't want. Right now it feels like quite possibly the worst time to ever feel indecisive about things.
There's no room for ambiguity in this story of a pandemic.
PLANETS, November 2021
The takeaway seems to be that we are on the brink of catastrophe. This is "code red for humanity". It seems that we already have all the answers but nobody wants to change. We know that we have to act but we are clueless about how to do it.
I watch a video of Mary Robinson as she calls on leaders to recognise that they can't "negotiate with science". In the clip, she gets justifiably emotional. We see people cry on screens all the time and yet this moment feels different. It feels honest and raw. Why do we not see other leaders showing emotion? Why is empathy not valued more highly? Why are we sure that a crisis will always operate as an accelerator for change?
WRITING, December 2021
I try and write about change. It feels good to reflect on the year that has been but I wonder why I tend to turn everything into work? I can't seem to just have my own thoughts — I have to turn them into something. I guess that's the nature of capitalism. We get conditioned into assuming that everything has to be some demonstration of productivity. Everything has to produce an outcome for it to be of value. Is this something I need to change?
Back in April, I read an article that suggested that we could become different people after this pandemic. Researchers found that adults could change the five traits that make up their personality within just a few months. The traits are connected, and so changing one may lead to changes in another. Our personalities are far more fluid than we might think. If we want to make changes we just need to allow for those tiny changes to occur.
It seems that perhaps we already do have all the answers, we just need to be willing to make the change.